Conceptualizing Progress in Grief
We often use the simile that grief is like a journey and while grief is a little bit like a journey, it’s not the perfect comparison. The word ‘journey’ is not quite right because (1) I think it makes grief sound way more exciting than it is and (2) journeys are usually direct and typically have an endpoint.
Grieving is anything but direct and, contrary to what many people believe, it doesn’t follow a specific path or end after an arbitrary amount of time. Grief happens in fits and starts; it’s full of ups and downs; and it requires you to try and try again. Some days, when you’re well rested and confident, you feel as though you have a handle on things and you say to yourself…
“I can do this. I am capable and in control.”
Other days, when you are weary and tired of the fight, you stumble backward, you stand still, or you manage to move just a few feet in the right direction. When this happens you say to yourself…
“I’m lost. I don’t know how to find my way. I’m not making much progress. I feel broken. I’ll never be whole again.”
When something evolves as clumsily and slowly as grief, it can be really hard to visualize progress. On a day-to-day basis you don’t feel any different, “better”, or “normal” and this perceived lack of improvement can feel very frustrating and defeating. But could it be that you aren’t giving yourself enough credit for the strides you’ve made?
How you measure up, depends on how you measure.
Something we often caution grieving people to be mindful of is their perspective. It seems like such a small thing, but the way you conceptualize yourself, the world, and others in the context of life after loss can have a big impact on how you feel. This is true in many instances, but particularly when thinking about personal progress in grief. Why? Because when thinking about adjustment and progress in grief, people often make the mistake of comparing themselves to their “best” or “ideal selves”.
In this instance, your “best” or “ideal self” may be based on a number of things:
1. The person you were before the loss: Even though you might intellectually know you will never be the “same”, it’s hard not to think back and idealize the person you were before your loved one died and before you felt ravaged by the effects of grief.
In your mind’s eye the person you were “before” may seem more whole, unbroken, radiant, happy, and fulfilled. This person is such a far cry from the one you’ve become since you stopped showering and wearing real clothes, and also since you allowed that bird to build a nest in your hair. Okay so this is a complete exaggeration, but sometimes we (as people) are truly that unkind to our self-perception.
2. How you believe you should feel based on assumptions and expectations you hold: Before experiencing grief you likely had at least a few assumptions about (1) what grief looks and feels like and (2) your ability to handle emotional distress and hardship. But as we’ve heard many people say about the experience of grief: “Nothing prepares you for it”.
Many people find themselves blindsided by how different grief is than expected. It would be great if everyone responded to this unanticipated reality by saying to themselves,“Grief is harder than I thought.” Sadly though, many people continue to put stock in their expectations and instead say to themselves, “What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I handle this? Why am I not coping better?”
3. How people literally tell you you should be: Sad but true, some people will tell you you should pick up the grief pace. Comments and expectations from others can cause you to question yourself and can make you feel confused, ashamed, embarrassed, alienated, and many other things. Even though grieving at your own pace is okay, regardless of whether that pace is ‘head on’ or ‘slow and steady’, pressure from others can make you question the progress you’ve made.
Needless to say, comparing yourself to your “best” or “ideal self” works against you.
Looking towards a non-existent endpoint and staying focused on a mythical future-you, keeps only what you haven’t accomplished in your view. It’s good to have realistic goals and hopes for the future, but be careful not to compare yourself to unrealistic ideals and ignore the many gains (I’m certain) you’ve made.
Instead, if you truly want to gauge your progress, you should compare yourself to your start point (i.e. your worst) rather than your best. This is the only way to have proper perspective on what you’ve accomplished and to accurately see how far you’ve come. Even on days when you feel completely lost in your grief, if you look back to the beginning you will likely see that you are doing better than you were (unless some overlapping or subsequent setback has gotten in the way).
Grief is something you learn to live with day by day. Every time you push yourself to do something like get out of bed, face something you fear, sit with a painful emotion, engage in self-care, actively cope with your loss, honor your loved one…and the list goes on…you should say to yourself “good job”. You should feel proud of yourself for every small step you make, because healing from grief isn’t the result of smoothly navigating a journey. Healing from grief is what happens when you get up each day and decide to keep walking.
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